Ain't No Grave
Johnny Cash's American Recordings albums, recorded during the last decade of his life, carefully stewarded by Rick Rubin, are a monumental accomplishment - monumental enough, indeed, to stand as the monument that their incalculably influential creator deserves.
The quantity of the American Recordings matched the quality: four albums proper in the series released while Cash was alive, four further discs of out-takes and off-cuts collected in the Unearthed box set released immediately after Cash's death in 2003, and a fifth, posthumous addition, American V: A Hundred Highways, recorded immediately before Cash died, released in 2006. The last of these was - though brilliant - formidably sombre even by Cash's standards, unmistakably the sound of a dying man preparing to settle accounts with his maker. It is - or, at least, was - difficult to imagine what could possibly be left in the locker.
On the evidence of Ain't No Grave, regrettable though it is to report, not all that much. American VI is very much a companion volume to American V: acoustic, downbeat, almost wholly devoid of percussion, Cash's voice a wracked, whispery drawl, every note an effort. This is no problem in itself and was no problem on A Hundred Highways, on which such sturdy material as Bruce Springsteen's Further on Up the Road, Ian Tyson's Four Strong Winds and Hank Williams' On the Evening Train cohered into a chilling, dignified statement of satisfied resignation at the conclusion of a life well lived.
Ain't No Grave, by comparison, feels a sweeping up of scraps, a collation of tracks which were, to judge by their generally similar lyrical preoccupations, considered for A Hundred Highways but found wanting. Some were unlucky: it would have been a particular shame if these versions of Kris Kristofferson's For the Good Times and Tom Paxton's Where I'm Bound had languished unheard. Others are more fortunate than they deserve to be: not even Cash can get more than knee-deep in Sheryl Crow's Redemption Day.